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On the Question of Ethnicity and Feminism in Ethiopia: a Critique

I was first introduced to Ethiopia’s budding feminist space as a junior in university. As a baby feminist regularly gaslit into self-doubt and uncertainty, I was surprised and happily affirmed to find that there were others like me. Meeting and seeing other women who work in spaces that had barely seen any feministing, I felt like this country and her people were actually mine, that I had a right to claim space, to exist unharmed.

I saw my fellow women do great things: they held ‘setaweet circles’, much-needed spaces for consciousness-raising; they hosted city-wide fundraisers to support young women in universities; they initiated awareness campaigns such as #ChaltuLeminMotech, #PagumeActivism, and #ArifAbbat among others. They took inspiration from movements working across the world and held exhibitions such as #WhatSheWore to shed light on the pervasiveness of rape culture in our communities. In private, they held conversations unseating deeply held biases amongst friends and family. These amazing women were putting in the work, fighting with me and for me.

My feminist ‘education’ grew more complex, incorporating questions about capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. I learned that patriarchy never works alone, that these systems of oppression are always in the room, a boy’s club of sorts. As my understanding of these other systems deepened, questions arose around our feminist spaces that stoked new discomforts—even though the women in these spaces had identified the problems long before I had and continued to grapple with them.

Money was a problem; these women regularly experienced the struggle to secure resources and spoke about the need to align themselves with institutions that would have otherwise not been their first choices. It’s a problem shared by many local organizations; even our [African] governments struggle to operate without green lights from global loan sharks. This discomfort I could accept.

Other discomforts were more difficult to reconcile with the radicalness I had grown to expect from these spaces. It turns out, radicalness can get you in trouble. The women in these spaces knew that even the mildest versions of feminism will face a barrage of detractors. We live in a zealously religious and conservative country after all. “lemimetut tirgya menged iyamechachen new[1] has been an unfortunate stance when asked about certain silences.

And yet, I was forgiving, believing that sometimes the enemy is too big to fight and must be negotiated with. But as I sat with my discomfort, seeing how boldly and bravely movements in other countries fought for the marginalized, as I read of Stella Nyanzi’s glorious thrashing of Museveni and learned that daring and in-your-face resistance was possible, I grew disenchanted. Of course, I knew our context was different. I knew our politics were not the same as the countries around us. And so, it was in reading and learning about our politics that I began to see that something was wrong. The thing that has remained the elephant in the Ethiopian feminist room: the silent and looming question of ethnicity.

The Question of Ethnicity 

Our politics has been a bloody game for decades; bravery and truth-telling have been met with brutal repression and so many have learned a culture of silence and fear. Lives, families, and livelihoods are always at stake for those operating within activist and political spaces.

In an effort to continue operating and providing what are often lifesaving services, many of our women’s rights organizations and those working within them have long refrained from involvement in ‘ethnic politics.’ In doing so, they have contributed to the maintenance of the status quo where despite reality, Ethiopia is upheld as an emblem of unity and harmonious coexistence.

Considering the history and context of the nation, watching the individuals, organizations, and movements that have claimed intersectional and “radical” politics (in)formally announce their neutrality in ‘ethnic politics’ is jarringly contradictory.

Critiques of our current mainstream feminism could end here, if like many other institutions and ‘civil societies’, our most prominent organizations owned up to their reformism and truly refrained from participating in the bloody melee that is our current political environment.

However, for these entities to claim that neutrality while cozying up to and parroting the party lines of EZEMA and the Prosperity Party is a telling insight into their so-called feminist principles.

Most people know the history of this violently cobbled together nation. And yet, even with the stark realities of colonization, imperialism and its violence made legible, many Ethiopians still sing praises of colonizers, of butchers, and nationalists without a moment’s hesitation, justifying the actions of past rulers with statements ranging from “Imperialism was everywhere” to Inen alhonim nebere”[2 to “Oromos were imperial players too.” Our emperors occupy a large space in the national imagination; statues of them still stand in the same places they committed mass atrocities. The Derg, while putting an end to the feudalism of Northern ‘nobility’ and instituting communist land policies, enforced unity onto nationalities with unresolved and traumatic histories of subjugation. TPLF, despite maintaining the liberalized land policies of the Derg, exploited pre-existing inequalities and continued history of land-grabs, mass murder, and exile. And now, the nation’s current golden boy Abiy, who has betrayed those that brought him to power, is gleefully embarking on neoliberal incarnations of state policies from a century ago.

Knowing the centrality of ethnicity to Ethiopian politics, the silence of mainstream women’s rights movements on the topic is loud. We can refer to their public comments: that ethnic politics is a dangerous game, that there is negligible room for feminist voices to shape party stances in any meaningful way, and that when they try, they are pushed out or worse. All these things are regrettably true.

These comments paint a picture of knowledgeable feminists who are aware of the political forces in their country, know right from wrong but choose to distance themselves out of self-preservation. It’s a somewhat comforting picture. But a closer look tells us that things are not quite what they seem.

Exclusionary Discourses of the Urban Feminist Elite

Systemic violence is wielded by the powerful so that gender, race, sexuality, ability, and class all determine how each one of us operates in this world. Feminism is a lens, we are told, a lens that we can use to see and understand other problems. Yet on the question of ethnicity, there is an uneasy silence from a lot of us in elite feminist spaces. When this silence is probed, some curious stances emerge.

Some of us are self-proclaimed Zewg-zelel[3] feminists. ‘Zewg-zelel’ feminists pay lip-service to ‘ethnic justice,’ acknowledge that naturally, languages, cultures, and histories must be respected. In the same breath, those of us who fall into this category will also express to you that ethnic politics is the baseless occupation of the backward and power-hungry, the warmongers who love to disrupt what could be a peaceful, prosperous and united Ethiopia if we could all just get along. These are the feminists who attempt to transcend ethnicity, often claiming “ethnic politics has eroded and weakened women’s rights” or that little gem of thoughtlessness: “bihere setinente new”, “My ethnicity is my womanhood.” Incorporating ethnicity into their ‘feminist lens’ is a shallow project with little relevance to their own freedom.

Call attention to this deficiency and the zewg-zelels will start to sound like other groups unwilling to relinquish power and the advantages it brings. Threatened by the same principles they demand elsewhere, they like to tell people how they suffer from a ‘victim mentality’ and that in a ‘modern’ age, there is no room for petty ‘identity politics.’ If they chose to listen, any student of history could tell them who likes to use that kind of language; I can save you a bit of research and tell you it’s no one good.

But there are also other responses to the question of ethnicity. There are some, usually, the ‘radical’ feminists, who see the gravity of the matter, see the violence across Oromia and much of Southern Ethiopia, the disdain for non-highlanders in the heart of their own communities, *insert the centuries of brutality that has happened here* and somehow remain on the fence. These are the feminists who wish to relinquish personal responsibility, telling  you some variation of ‘it’s too messy’ or “we can’t fight every battle.” It’s discomfiting to think that no other issue in our purview is met with that cowardly stonewall of a response: “we can’t fight every battle.” [4]

This is particularly disappointing because our ‘radical’ feminists speak more or less freely on the centrality of queer rights, dis/ability, race, and class to their principles. They understand the rise of Nazis and white nationalism across Europe, the centuries-long vicious erasure of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia and across the world, the violent intensification of Hindu nationalism in India. Yet when it comes to historical and ongoing injustice on their own lands, they remain in the dark, deploying the trusty retort of liberals everywhere: “conflicting information from both sides” i.e. good people on both sides i.e. all lives matter.

Confusion stopped being a plausible excuse a long time ago. Oromo activists and scholars have voiced their people’s discontent for centuries, and since Walelign’s still relevant Question of Nationalities gifted to us in the 70s, wilful/spiteful ignorance is the only explanation left.

Feminism is not a mantle you throw on when you feel like it; it is not a tool meant for selective engagement. The principles we apply to every other issue must be applied here. Look in other places and other times and examine the parallels between your country’s history and that of other oppressive states. Ask yourself the difficult questions and understand that the shit you have to unlearn can take a lifetime and more.

I understand that some of us, especially those of us indoctrinated into ignorance, cannot afford to do this. Women live dangerous lives in every nook and cranny of this country, many are desperate and do not possess the luxury of waiting for someone perfect to come along. If these women find comfort in ezema/PP’s supposed ‘gender progressive’ embrace, it will be the unfortunate result of a political moment that has been brewing for nigh on two centuries. If ezema/PP should, god-forbid, become the party of women, historians will write about how Ethiopia followed the likes of Tunisia, Iran, America, and countless other countries where right-wing parties underwent a ‘gender facelift’ by recruiting women to their conservative causes.

If these women, poor and lacking for social safety nets and a justice system to hear their grievances, end up driven into Ezema/PP’s arms, they can be forgiven. But anyone else, especially those of us preaching intersectionality, to engage uncritically with these groups, to not lambast them for their thinly veiled bigotry at every opportunity is at best inexcusable ignorance, at worst a betrayal.

When one form of bigotry is tolerated in service of fighting another, everyone watching can see that the ‘feminism’ in question can be compromised, that there is a willingness to sacrifice one group’s wellbeing to protect another’s. And it hurts to know that those at the margins are the ones considered disposable. It hurts to know that loud and proud championing is reserved, not for those who need it the most, but for those it is easiest to back.

At its heart, feminism is for all; to live it, every action must be preceded by the question ‘who am I leaving behind?’ And feminism leaves no one behind. We (especially the straight, classed, and abled urbanites of ‘modernity’) have to show up and fight every battle, always. And even when there is no way, we find away. Anything less is unworthy.

[1] “clearing a footpath for those that will come after us.”

[2] “If it hadn’t been for the emperors in the past, I wouldn’t be me today”  

[3] Feminists who do not see “ethnicity” in the same way white people do not see colour.

[4] The ‘discourse’ has shown that sexuality and gender expression is a much less prioritized twin to this obstacle. Many of our so-called feminists do not comprehend that queer liberation is fundamental to their own and show no interest in doing so. The author recommends a smack to the head, followed by a minimum of 3 books from this list before these persons claim any sort of feminism. The author also looks forward to the day queer and LGBTQ+ Ethiopians live free in their communities.

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  1. Giiftii Giiftii

    ”Yet when it comes to historical and ongoing injustice on their own lands, they remain in the dark, deploying the trusty retort of liberals everywhere”
    Great analysis on the ongoing injustice in the country EduKoo. As an Oromo woman I had experienced a lot of racism from the urban elite feminist, i feel very aware of my racial identity in every dialogue, and that shit was traumatic. but this are the same people who are against the oppression of women in other countries but choose to go AWOL on the barbaric abuse of women in Ethiopia which betrays their own feminist principles: Feminism does not discriminate. The double standard is mind boggling ugh!

    • Hi Giiftii,
      Thanks for this. It would be great if you could give an example of the type of discrimination you felt you got in urban elite feminist spaces, so that we may learn and improve. Since reading this piece, I have asked Oromo members of Setaweet if there are internal biases that non-Oromo in the spaces that we are not aware of, but none have come to mind. The Addoyyee principle of Setaweet was introduced to us by Firaol Belay, originally from Wellega, and Afaan Oromo is a second working language for Setaweet, including for journal submissions. I look forward to interacting with you on this, and if you prefer to discuss the matter with Oromo members of Setaweet, I can put you in touch with them too. Lastly, please sign up for the Open Session we will have on October 10th, discussing gender and (ethno) nationalism.

  2. N N

    Wow. We needed this level of analysis! Well done.

  3. Mt Mt

    Thank you so much. Most of us don’t realize that we operate from a privileged position.

  4. Hallelujah Belay Hallelujah Belay

    Though I have no intention to overlook your shrewd point of view on the true stakes of feminism, I didn’t any way refrain from saying something thing on your historical narrations and rhetoric that you begin with to refute the points raised by Sehin. I didn’t like your personal trajectory aimed at attacking the writer personally. Besides, where did you get the point of feminism from the piece, if I have not mistaken it talks about a different matter i.e it has nothing to do with feminism as far as I know.
    Moreover, I always wonder you and other like-minded individuals begin your historical narrations from the time of Emperors that allegedly oppressed peoples in various areas of the country. Here I have no intention to dismiss facts that existed during the time. My point is our history be it a bad time or good time goes back to the 14th,15th, and beyond. If it were not for the major historical upheaval during such time, maybe, maybe our history would not have the architecture we have today. If we are about to create historical consensus and thereby to establish conciliation and forgiveness, we need to shape this kind of paralyzed view.
    So, our knowledge should not be a caveat for division and harboring hatred among ethnic groups. We have to see social and economic organizations that work for mutual interest

  5. Boona Boona

    Well written and eye opening. Thank you !

  6. J.d J.d

    Thank you. I thought it was a well written article as well except the myopic view on Ethnic relationships and history in Ethiopia (the manufactured oromo grievance narrative basically). Indeed, Ethiopian history doesn’t start where the author and many oromos want us to believe. They conveniently forget/dismiss the Oromo expansions of the 15th and 16th century filled with atrocities.

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